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September 6, 2013 at 12:57 PM

Mariners have potentially ‘good’ players, but that’s it

Kendrys Morales (left) congratulates Justin Smoak at home plate after Smoak's first inning homer yesterday. The Mariners face a key decision on how far they'll go to bring Morales back next season to a team lacking elite level bats. Photo Credit: AP

Kendrys Morales (left) congratulates Justin Smoak at home plate after Smoak’s first inning homer yesterday. The Mariners face a key decision on how far they’ll go to bring Morales back next season to a team lacking elite level bats. Photo Credit: AP

Mariners manager Eric Wedge made an interesting comment about his team in the hours prior to yesterday’s 13-inning loss to the Kansas City Royals.

“I think we’ve got a lot of guys that have a good chance to be good ballplayers,” Wedge said. “I don’t know if we have any superstars. That’s probably a reach. But I think we’ve got volume, if that makes any sense. More so than in the past. We’ve got a number of players — probably more players who’ve got a chance to be good, solid big league players — than maybe other organizations. So, that’s what we’re trying to develop.”

Wedge meant the comment as a compliment more than a shot at his own team. But his unsolicited words echo what we were discussing in this space a couple of days ago when it comes to Kendrys Morales and his future with the organization. As was mentioned, the Mariners do not appear to be a team with any true, elite-level talent. Mike Zunino is not Buster Posey — at least not yet. Dustin Ackley has not morphed into another Chase Utley, or Aaron Hill. Justin Smoak is not Mark Teixeira. Nick Franklin hits the home runs that a young Adam Kennedy once did, but his defense isn’t as good and no one ever called Kennedy a superstar even though he did hit three homers in a decisive ALCS game back in 2002.

Brad Miller gets compared to Kyle Seager a lot for his intangibles, but again, nobody is confusing Seager with Adrian Beltre.  Seager is a guy who has worked his tail off to get where he is today — possibly the best all-around player on the Mariners right now.

But if he’s your best, it likely won’t be good enough. You look down the list of first place teams and playoff contenders and all have at least one player who ranks as truly elite on the hitting side. Many have multiple guys who can do that. The Mariners, right now, don’t really have that game-changer. And as hard as Seager has kept on working to improve his game, he may never attain those levels and certainly is not expected to by those who make their living forecasting these types of things.

But even if Seager does work his way up to surpass all expectations and become a top-10 hitter in the American League, it helps to have more than one. And right now  – five years and counting into this rebuilding plan — the Mariners are lacking that key element that teams they supposedly aspire to emulate do have.

Which is why the Morales question becomes so important.

As mentioned before, Morales right now isn’t putting up elite level numbers. But he has put up good numbers. And the last full season before he broke his ankle early in 2010, he put he put up a .924 OPS in 594 at-bats. Not protected against certain-handed pitchers, or buried in spots No. 7-through-9  in the order to ease pressure. In nearly 600 at-bats, most of them in the No. 6 spot or higher up.

So, there’s still that expectation that Morales can do more than he’s done this year or last season coming back from a devastating two-year injury. And if that’s right, then the team having him will benefit tremendously. If it’s wrong, that team still gets a good hitter.

No question that, as of today, his numbers don’t merit a one-year, $14 million contract on a qualifying offer. But we’re not operating in a vaccuum here. The Mariners don’t exactly have a bunch of even very good hitters to throw away. If Morales walks, who takes his place as the DH? Who fills in for Justin Smoak at first base? Who is that guy the Mariners have in their system who can post an OPS of .800 for most of the year — this current month-long Morales slump aside — while giving you the lineup flexibility offered by a switch hitter?

Morales the switch-hitter is not Smoak. His lefty-righty splits have been pretty steady throughout his career and even his .735 OPS from the weaker left side this season is not crippling in any way.

Sure, you’d hope Morales would improve if you’re the Mariners. Frankly, if he was already putting up elite level numbers, the Mariners would have zero shot at him because this team is again headed for 90 losses and his pricetag would be too high for Seattle to afford the going market rate plus the overpay needed to keep players in this losing market.

So, yeah, there will likely be a perceived overpay to keep Morales here in a year in which the free agent market isn’t exactly filled with sluggers. But the Mariners have tried to go the cheaper, bargain route with their DH experiments ever since Edgar Martinez retired and have yet to succeed. For all the smart folk who’ve kept assuring that you can fill the DH slot for $5 million, the Mariners have had disasters piling up at their doorstep.

Let Morales go now, that’s one more hole the team needs to fill in an off-season where plenty are gaping. Keep him and yeah, he might not become the player you envisioned. But at the very least, you get a good hitter, one who came about his numbers honestly — in the middle of the order and not protected like so many part-timers whose inflated numbers get knocked down as their at-bats climb — and gives you that switch-hitting ability.

Over the years, we’ve seen plenty of debate about who the Mariners should sign and whether they could afford them.

By now, it should be obvious that the Mariners — having built franchise value and their own RSN TV network while losing big on the field the past four years — should have more than enough money to import several of the pieces they need. In other words, to keep Morales even at $14 million for next year, bolster their starting rotation and add some bigger outfield bats. The argument for years that the Mariners could eventually compete on a budget like the smaller market Rays and A’s isn’t panning out. Largely because the Mariners lack the talent those teams have.

Rebuilding plans like these aren’t always “the right way” to go. Sometimes they work and sometimes they take forever and don’t pan out. Sometimes, in the process of waiting five, seven, 10, or 15 years for various incarnations of multiple rebuilding efforts to finally succeed, you lose a generation of fans in the process.

In Seattle, we’ve seen a lot of skittishness over the years about signing bigger-priced free agents, largely because of past failures. The Mariners, to the delight of those always on the hunt for value at the expense of getting what the team actually needs, have largely balked at bigger-ticket pieces. Some, like Josh Hamilton, might not have worked out — at least, not this year. But again, while “winning” that battle, the Mariners are still losing. They are still not a good team. Five years into the rebuilding plan, it’s produced Seager as the one position player most Mariners fans would agree is about the only “sure thing” this team has going forward.

That’s not a victory. That’s a half-decade of a mostly risk-averse financial approach to bettering the on-field product. And the result is what you see today. The only upside is that the Mariners, having bided their time the past five years while pricey contracts came off the books and their RSN deal was finalized, now have a lean, trim if still not-so-fighting machine on their hands.

The question now is what they do with the money they haven’t spent all these years.

They can afford Morales and a whole lot more.

This isn’t a Morales-or-nothing equation. And it isn’t a Morales-versus-a-good-outfielder question.

It’s a question of, who replaces Morales when he leaves? Does that make the team better or worse? And can the Mariners easily replace what he brings? And if the answer is no on those fronts, the team has to seriously consider spending more than he might be perceived to be worth on the open market to keep him.

The past five years of wheel-spinning may have been fun for those who like to dream about prospects and who they can turn into. However, as I showed up top, many of the comps for the young Mariners added the past few years have not panned out and likely won’t turn out the way the most optimistic forecasters once dreamed. Some will be good, but it’s questionable whether it will be good enough.

Now, it’s time to stop the dreaming and start getting real if this team ever hopes to compete at some point this decade.

Comments | More in Free agents | Topics: kendrys morales; kyle seager; switch-hitter; contract


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